It goes without saying that divorce will affect your children in some way. There have been many studies that have examined how divorce affects children. Some researchers have studied children over time to record the impact of divorce long term. Others have examined parental behavior as a predictor of children’s reactions to divorce. Given all of this research, fortunately, there are some things you can do as a parent to protect your kids from the negative impacts of your divorce.
As Dr. Jeremy S. Gaies and Dr. James B. Morris, Jr., point out, “between 75% and 80% of the children whose parents divorced fell in the normal range or better on psychological, social and behavioral measures 2–3 years after the divorce”. Researchers agree that how a child comes through their parents’ divorce largely depends on how active, involved and attentive the parents are to the child’s needs.
There are 9 things you can do as a parent to protect your kids from the negative impacts of your divorce:
Risk factor: Different school, new home or two homes, step-parents/siblings, parents having new romantic relationships – all these are risk factors that exacerbate the negative impact of a divorce on kids.
Protective factor: Parents should do everything possible to maintain a stable and consistent routine and environment, such as keeping their kids in the same school after a divorce.
Risk factor: Kids thrive on routine. When their schedules and routines become disrupted, sporadic and unpredictable, kids suffer.
Protective factor: Parents should do their best to establish and maintain a steady routine for their kids, such as having a consistent bedtime at both parents’ homes.
#3: Parental conflict
Risk factor: An intense negative relationship with the co-parent puts kids in the middle of the conflict, and forces them to choose sides.
Protective factor: Parents must work through their own issues and have the healthiest co-parenting relationship possible, for the sake of their kids.
#4: Parental availability
Risk factor: Non-custodial parent may stop being a daily (or even regular) presence in their lives, depriving kids of regular contact with that parent.
Protective factor: Both parents should make an effort to remain available to their children on a regular, frequent, and predictable basis. Using the WeParent app can help with establishing and maintaining a regular custody schedule.
#5: Parent-child relationship
Risk factor: Child may begin to act out, withdraw, or reduce communication with one or both of the parents after their divorce.
Protective factor: Parents should watch for these signs and strive to maintain or improve their relationship with their child.
#6: Personal characteristics of the parents
Risk factor: The more behavioral, psychological or substance abuse problems a parent has, the more it puts their kids at risk.
Protective factor: Parents should seek help to deal with their own issues to avoid negatively affecting your child.
#7: Personal characteristics of the child
Risk factor: Children who are reserved, shy, or sensitive might become more so after a divorce.
Protective factor: Parents should be sensitive to the child’s personality and work to ensure that they are addressing each child’s specific needs.
#8: Parenting skills and style
Risk factor: Poor parenting skills put the child more at risk.
Protective factor: Like most other skills, parenting skills can be learned – you don’t have to be born with them. Effective parents tend to:
- Exhibit warmth and caring
- Provide emotional support
- Have consistent rules, expectations, and consequences
- Adequately monitor the child’s activities and routines
- Encourage academic skill development
- Are actively involved in the child’s life, and
- Provide for the child’s basic physical and psychological needs
#9: Social support
Risk factor: Removal of, or reduction in, relationships with their siblings, extended family and friends can put the child at risk.
Protective factor: Parents should work to maintain as many healthy relationships as possible in the child’s life.
Amy Morin talks about some of the common effects of divorce on children and strategies for helping them adjust. Children have to adjust to many things during a divorce. They face many changes in their daily lives. Things like their school, moving to a new home, dealing with a step-parent, a changing relationship with each parent, a change in their schedules, traveling to visit one of their parents, changes in the extended family. These changes can show themselves as delinquency, behavioral problems, decreased academic performance, anger.
Strategies that parents can use to help their children adjust are:
- Co-parent peacefully: Leave your anger, frustrations, and resentment out of the mix when you both are dealing with the children. Children that witness these behaviors in their parents have increased stress levels and put them at risk.
- Don’t put your kids in the middle: Your children should not be your personal messengers nor should they be encouraged to choose which parent they like best. Being caught in the middle like this definitely increases their anxiety and stress.
- Maintain a healthy relationship with your child: Try to be positive, warm and empathetic when talking with your children. Keeping communication lines open and positive helps your children achieve more academically as well as personally.
- Use consistent discipline: Children seem to thrive on structure and consistency. Set up realistic, age-appropriate rules and consequences. Be sure that your ex is onboard with these rules and follows them when he/she has the children. These consistent rules also help with their academic performance.
- Monitor adolescents closely: Teens are a unique group, testing boundaries, rules, etc. Closely monitoring their social circles, activities, behavior and school performances should result in less behavioral issues and fewer problems with school and academics.
- Empower your child: Try to encourage your child to develop positive coping skills to deal with the changes the divorce is causing. Offer positive examples, feedback, and encouragement.
- Teach specific coping skills: Through empowerment, your child should learn these positive coping skills. You want a healthy child, mentally and physically, so seek out help for problem-solving skills, coping mechanisms and other strategies to help them through the divorce.
- Help your child feel safe and secure: Anxiety about their new living situations can be the cause of much anxiety. One parent most often has moved out leaving the child with feelings of abandonment, anxiety, etc. You want to child to know that they are living in different circumstances, but they are safe and loved in both places.
- Attend a parent education program: Learning good parenting skills and tips for helping your children is always in the best interest of your children as well as your own mental health. The things you learn through these classes will help the entire family through the divorce.
- Seek professional help for yourself: A healthy parent, physically and emotionally, is a better parent. By working with a mental health professional, you can work through your own issues with the divorce, thereby reducing your stress levels. With a less stressed parent, children are in a better position to deal with their own challenges from the divorce.
YourDivorceQuestions.org has a blog entitled “How Might Divorce Affect my Children?”, where it reviews some of the current research on the effects of divorce on children and then asks why some children are more affected by divorce than others.
Research shows that children of divorce often have a greater risk of experiencing loneliness, emotional insecurities like anger substance abuse, thoughts of suicide, poor relationships with friends, an increase in illnesses like asthma and headaches. There is data to show that children of divorce do worse academically and tend to have less high school graduation rates. They tend to be less involved in religious activities, engage in sexual behavior earlier. Children of divorce are two to three times more likely to divorce themselves.
As we all know, not every child will experience all or some of these effects. How our children cope with divorce can depend on many things. This blog identifies below some factors in what might determine how a child deals with their parents’ divorce.
High conflict marriages vs. low conflict marriages: Children whose parents are in a high conflict marriage before their divorce are better off when the parents separate and divorce because the stress levels in the family are less. Parents in a positive relationship with each other, then divorce will often have children who are having a hard time coping because they did not foresee this outcome.
Resilient vs. vulnerable children: A resilient child, in general, will be resilient in most situations in their lives because they have developed positive coping and social skills. Children that struggle with changes overall in their lives most likely will have problems dealing with this monumental change in their lives, divorce.
Good parenting and father involvement: Maintaining or even establishing good parenting skills will be an essential part of your children’s adjustment. The stress of the divorce can often cause parents to put aside their positive parenting skills and use inconsistent discipline. Keeping a consistent, loving relationship with your children will help them in their adjustment. When a father continues to maintain a high level of involvement will also have a positive impact on how their children will adjust to divorce.
Stability: As mentioned in several studies, children thrive on routine and consistency. Try to avoid big changes like moving, change in schools, less contact with the extended family, etc. Adding in a dating relationship or stepparent will be a factor in the child’s stress level as well. When possible, parents should try to keep their romantic relationships out of the children’s lives.
Sophie Rickson, for DivorceMag.com lists five ways to reduce the negative effects of divorce on your children. The first tip is for both parents to come together to make a plan of what to tell the children about the divorce. Tip number two is to never fight in front of your children. Witnessing less negative conflict will help the children become less anxious and fearful. Tip three is to establish a positive co-parenting relationship and plan. Be involved in their lives and avoid conflict with the other parent. Do not discuss the financial situation of the divorce with your children is tip number four. Finally, the last tip is to postpone introducing any new romantic partners to your children. Consistency and stability are important for children and they need time to adjust to the new situations presented by the divorce before another new situation is introduced.
Justin Coulson writes about how separation and divorce affect children for KidSpot website. Coulson suggests that some short-term consequences of divorce include anger, sadness, feeling that they are responsible for the breakup. Long term effects show a higher incident of substance abuse, depression, divorce for their own marriages.
The age of your children at the time of your divorce makes a difference in how they cope. Young children have more psychological issues than older issues. His review of the research indicates that the longer parents stay together before a divorce, the better the children will be psychologically and physically.
Girls tend to deal with divorce better than boys for the first five years. After ten years of divorce or separation, boys tend to deal better with the situation than girls.
Coulson’s research review cites studies that demonstrate that children in two-parent homes are better off in nearly every aspect: academically, physically, psychologically, cognitively, etc. He suggests that when making the decision to separate or divorce, only the parents can make that decision. Children have to go along with whatever the parents decide. Since there can be many negative effects, Coulson suggests that parents should put aside their differences and put the best interest of the children in the forefront. They should stay together at all cost unless there is abuse, volitivity or aggression.
Brittany Wong has written an article for LIFE that appeared on the Huffington Post website in October 2017. She gathered some of the most interesting responses from Reddit who asked kids how their parents’ divorce affected them. Here are some of their responses:
- “My parents’ divorce increased [my bullying] tenfold”
- “My parents never got divorced because they’re Catholic. That said, once she finally did leave him, I was relieved.”
- One respondent stated that money problems were a constant. They lived in a one bedroom apartment and his mom had to work two to three jobs.
- “Life as you know it changes when your parents split up. It’s only natural for a kid to rebel against the change in some way.”
- “Waiting to divorce until the kids are grown and out of the house doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.”
Upon having to spend weekends with her father who constantly badmouthed her mother, this respondent said “My dad always told me that I was manipulative and playing games with him. It took me more than 18 years to figure out I wasn’t manipulative, game-playing control freak. I was the daughter of one.”
Subsequent examination of this updated Reddit survey adds these comments by children of divorce:
- “It’s hard to accomplish a steady routine being moved back and forth every weekend”
- “I deeply resent them for how childish they acted. They would torment me for wanting to spend time with the other parent.”
- “I feel like since the divorce, my relationship with my mother deteriorated and my relationship with my father recovered.”
- “I lost some respect for both of them. Not forgetting divorced, they have every right if they want to, but for how immature they’ve acted toward each other since.”
A Children-and-Divorce.com blog outlines some basic study findings about the effects of divorce on children. Age has a bearing on how children react. Those under nine years old tend to blame themselves and wish their parents would get back together. Pre-schoolers often become more dependent, while those children ages nine through thirteen tend to become more independent and mistrusts their parents more. Boys in this age group tend to be more aggressive and rebellious. Girls tend to be more withdrawn, anxious and more at risk of becoming sexually active at an earlier age. Children of divorce tend to have higher levels of stress, become more difficult to manage, and have trouble adjusting to new situations.
This blog cites some of the study results of the long-term study done by Judith Wallerstein. She finds that the highest impact of divorce actually comes fifteen to twenty years later when those children (now adults) move into romantic relationships of their own. They fear loss, conflict, and failure in their romantic relationships.
Studies of children and divorce from the 1970s seemed to show all negative effects. Recent studies, however, are showing things in a more positive light. Wallerstein’s study, for instance, showed that the short-term effects of the divorce were, in fact, negative, but as time moved on, those effects became less negative. Many children were determined not to make the same mistakes as their parents. Long term effects are also clearly associated with the parents’ behavior and level of conflict.
Clearly, divorce affects children, even as they age into adulthood. How parents handle things during the divorce will greatly determine how the children will fair. Putting the children first, learning positive parenting skills and keeping the lines of communications open are the basics in assuring the children’s success at moving through the parents’ divorce.